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Does the Star System Work Anymore?

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Updated: October 24, 2013

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Photo by Keith Allison

We all know the rich (athletes) get richer but the question is, how much of “the 1%” can any club afford to employ?

In this era where all major sports have some sort of restraint on team salaries GM’s are more challenged to allocate their salary budget. As in the real world, salaries for the proven big producers escalate faster than those for the rank and file, leaving less for the little guy. But does it pay to have those big studs or are you better off with a more democratic team?

Photo by donthatemiami.com

In baseball the stats say no club has won a World Series while paying more than 16% of their team salary to a single player. In 2004 Manny Ramirez was paid 15% of the Red Sox’ total ($20M of Sox’ $130M); in 2009 A-Rod earned 16% of the Yanks’ total ($33M of Yanks’ $201M).

Interesting to note that in MLB there are 32 players with $100M+ contracts but only two in this World Series: Matt Holliday and Dustin Pedroia. Also interesting that both Series clubs were bailed out of massive contracts (Pujols, Beckett, Crawford, Gonzalez) due to big new L.A. cable TV deals.

The Yankees are Exhibit A in how not to construct a team when you have spending restraints (yes, even the Yanks have a budget). They have 3 players (A-Rod, Teixeira, Sabathia) earning a combined $75M/yr…each of these contracts runs another 3-4 career-fading years, “dead contracts” and they’re massive. It’s expensive to feed the (YES Network) beast.

The smart teams like the Cardinals, Red Sox and Rays develop a steady stream of young talent and constantly infuse a lineup with youthful energy. This is the only way to fill out a competitive roster when you have a few big contracts. Otherwise you’re rushing marginal youngsters (see Mets) or dining on waiver wire fare (see Yankees).

Photo by AJ Guel

The NFL has become a QB league…the rule changes scream, “throw the ball”…and if you don’t have a good one you don’t win. Problem is there aren’t 32 starting caliber QB’s in the world. Never was this more obvious than when the Rams asked 44-yr-old Brett Favre if he wants to play a little more ball. Jeff Garcia (43) wants back in too. And surely they’d be better than a few of this week’s starters.

So if you have a good one, that’s good, right? Not necessarily. The Giants have a good one (really, he is). Problem is they lead the NFL with the highest percent of their payroll going to rostered QB’s at 17.7%. Eli Manning is far from the highest paid QB but in salary cap terms the Giants have the least payroll available to pay his helpers. Don’t think this isn’t a primary factor in the Giants’ current 1-6 record.

It seems the sweet spot in the NFL these days is to have a great but inexpensive QB and be able to put together a balanced squad. Great-but-inexpensive means young, especially if he’s unheralded like Russell Wilson or Colin Kaepernick, then he’s a steal…for a few years.

The Patriots are an interesting case in the modern NFL. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are great at their jobs. But with team success the other players want to get paid too and ultimately they need to go elsewhere. Once the Pats reached the top it’s been a revolving door.

M. Prokhorov by losthatsportsblog.com

The NBA has a soft cap and a luxury tax system. So like in MLB, if you don’t mind paying a punitive luxury tax you can go crazy with the payroll. The Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov who owns the Brooklyn Nets seems determined to win an NBA title and money is no object. Trying to outspend his way to a title…because he can…with a bunch of old guys (and with LeBron standing in the way) is an interesting experiment. More power to him.

At the risk of going ‘social commentary’ in a sports blog, I’m afraid we’re going to see more rather than less of the Prokhorov model. With franchise values getting to billion-dollar levels we’ll see the uber-wealthy (Prokhorov) and private equity consortiums (Dodgers) as the future in ownership. Money will not be an obstacle to player procurement…because they can…and others can’t. We’ll see whether they’re successful.

Otherwise in today’s world there’s a limit to how much of the “the 1%” should be concentrated on one ballclub. As this World Series shows, scouting, development, budgeting and creativity still count for something…as it should be.

This post was written by

Dave Graziano – who has written posts on Big Dog Sports Blog.
Short Hills, NJ USA

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